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UNHCR Seoul chief appreciates S. Korea's opening of borders for refugees despite COVID-19

All News 17:08 December 14, 2020

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Dec. 14 (Yonhap) -- The U.N. refugee agency's representative in Seoul on Monday appreciated South Korea keeping its borders open for asylum seekers despite the COVID-19 pandemic, while calling for efforts to change the lingering perception of refugees simply as a "burden."

James Lynch, head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Korea, made the remarks during a press conference marking the 70th anniversary of the agency born after World War II to help those fleeing violence, conflict and other threats to their lives.

"The Korean government, unlike 168 other countries, has had a functioning asylum system throughout the pandemic. They have been inclusive in allowing all people, including refugees, to have access to the medical care system," Lynch said.

"It is also important to note that they continue to admit refugees even throughout the pandemic. So we would like to applaud the government of Korea for their actions during the pandemic," he added.

James Lynch, head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Korea, attends a press conference in Seoul on Dec. 14, 2020, in this photo provided by his office. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Despite Seoul's contributions to helping address refugee crises around the world, Lynch noted "only a slight change" in Korean people's perception toward asylum seekers since 2018, when the refugee issue emerged as a hot-button topic here due to a sudden influx of Yemenis having arrived on the southern resort island of Jeju to seek asylum.

Lynch cited the result of last month's public survey that showed the percentage of Koreans in favor of admitting refugees rose to 33 percent from 24 percent tallied in 2018. The poll was conducted on 1,016 Korean citizens aged 18 or older.

"Any positive change is welcome. But what we have seen is only a slight change in attitude toward refugees in Korea," he said.

"It is also an anniversary of the Korean War. So we know that people in Korea understand very well what it's like to have to flee conflict, find safety and refuge," he added, referring to the outbreak of the 1950-53 conflict.

Touching on the deeply ingrained public perception of refugees as a "burden," Lynch stressed the need to change that "equation."

"I think it is the general perception not just in Korea that refugees are a burden, not a contribution. I think that equation needs to be turned around," he said, citing Albert Einstein -- a German-born physicist who sought refugee after fleeing Nazi threats -- as an example of refugees' contribution to society.

"Refugees contribute a lot to new homes where they reside. Generally, we've seen very little ... kind of criminality. We've seen the people are hardworking," he added.

Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR director of the bureau for Asia and the Pacific, also joined the conference through video links. He stressed the role of South Korea in supporting refugees through its actions such as helping them overcome the pandemic.

"I think it is very important to recognize the role of Korea, not just in leading the way to respond to the crisis domestically but also in its very generous and magnanimous support to UNHCR and others in the COVID response," Ratwatte said.

"That gesture of solidarity from other countries means that it gives them support and strength and confidence to deal with refugee issues in a manner that they feel shared responsibility and shared burdens together," he added.

In 1950, the UNHCR started its mission first under a three-year mandate with only 34 employees. It now has 17,000 personnel in 135 countries as a bedrock agency to address refugee crises in Myanmar, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world.

"I think protecting people forced to flee is our mandate. I have witnessed through my 31 years (of service) the strength, resilience and courage of refugees," the Seoul representative said.


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